Police, security forces, and private landlords are increasingly using facial recognition across Western Europe for surveillance purposes. Facial recognition systems have been deployed by police in Berlin, Copenhagen, and several UK cities. Concern about the use of this technology by the public and private sector is growing dramatically, and legislators are now waking up to the ethical dilemmas the technology is creating. Those using facial recognition technology argue that the technology is helping to improve public safety at a lower cost. However, these perceived benefits need to be weighed up against the privacy concerns of the scrutinised public.
The issue is coming to a head in Western Europe and the European Union. Legislators are exploring ways to control the use of facial recognition technology through legislation, according to the FT. Supposedly, the legislation would limit the indiscriminate use of facial recognition technology by companies and public authorities.
Under the plan, European citizens would be given the powers to know when facial recognition data is used, with any exceptions tightly controlled to ensure appropriate use. The European Union’s plan would go some way to readdress the critical balance between consumer privacy and surveillance.
So… Is New Legislation Required?
Some activists believe that no new legislation is required, and that facial regulation could already fall outside of existing EU laws. These groups are arguing that the scanning of faces without explicit consent amounts to a violation of the EU’s GDPR privacy laws. These same activists want to see facial recognition data reclassified as “Biometric data”, which under the GDPR requires explicit consent from the individual for collection. If the EU were to follow the approach of reclassifying facial recognition data as biometric, it would make it almost unworkable to deploy the technology for surveillance purposes in open public spaces.
The emergence of the EU’s plan for legislation would suggest that the EU doesn’t want to reclassify facial recognition data as “biometric data”. Instead, the EU looks likely to take a lighter approach, creating separate legislation to address the area of facial recognition, which would make it possible for it to be deployed in surveillance scenarios, because under the planned legislation, companies and authorities would only have to make citizens aware the technology was in use, not explicitly seek their consent to have their facial recognition data collected.
Another factor driving calls for the European Union to take an active legislative position on the issue of facial recognition systems is that some citizens fear the rise in national governments that have less respect for individual liberties. Citizens groups are concerned that the use of facial recognition by the state could damage personal privacy and allow governments to become more totalitarian in nature.
For instance, facial recognition can be used to identify participants in a legitimate peaceful protest — information that nefarious governments may use to pursue and harass those same citizens. Given the rise of populist governments in Italy and Hungary, and growing popularity of the Front National in France, the AfD in Germany, and the Freedom Party in Austria, it could become critical for the European Union to create proper controls around how facial recognition technologies are used.
Balancing Privacy With Security
Facial recognition technology is already commonplace in consumer devices and internet platforms, whether that’s in face scanning to unlock phones, or in auto tagging of photos on social media. However, there is a critical difference between a consumer choosing to use facial recognition features on their smart phone, and local authorities using the technology to track the activities of citizens in public without their consent.
Some have suggested that local authorities should focus on the anonymised possibilities of image recognition technology, such as tracking suspicious movements and behaviours of individuals, without registering their faces on a database. What’s clear is that government authorities are keen to increase their use of facial recognition technology, but citizens are justifiably concerned by the prospect, and there is still some distance to travel in terms of finding a unified solution that will satisfy both.
If you want to know more about privacy and ethical concerns in facial recognition, take a look at our report.